How It Took Eleven Years After Leaving Art School to Learn How to Draw Properly.

I’m not one of those people who is going to disparage my time at art school as unproductive, I learnt loads while I was studying, nothing in education is ever wasted but what I do now has taken eleven years to master, and I didn’t start it at art school.

I did copious amounts of drawing at art school, of course, I did. I studied everything of any interest to any project visually through my sketchbook then expressed what I was going to do in the form of design drawings. It is the foundation of the artist’s creative process, how you go about it informs everything you do as an artist. It is as much about looking and studying the world around you as it is about getting marks down on paper.

Drawing Sound

I had a vague notion I was might be able to draw sound at art school, some half-hearted attempts to interpret birdsong and the visual pleasure I have always had from listening to music. I had not heard of synaesthesia at this point. It was this wondering that prompted me to ask a fellow student whether he could see anything when he listened to music, the answer was a resounding no. Not long after this, I saw a TV programme on synaesthesia, and it was that that made me realise what I experienced was a thing outside of most people’s range of experience.

Will Anybody Believe Me?

I did not investigate my synaesthesia at art school I think I thought no-one would believe me or my tutors would think it was gimmicky and not art. The drive to do so grew after I left college. I have drawing skills and can draw well, so why was it so frustrating to try to draw what I could see in my head when I listened to music? The beautiful colour complexity and fantastical shapes eluded me time after time as I tried to draw them.

New Level Of Skill Set

Drawing from sound was a whole new skill set I needed to develop and the only way to learn it was to do it. It was a very different way of “looking” when I draw a physical object I study it, and it’s relationship to the space around it and the light hitting it. Drawing my synaesthesia meant letting go and allowing the shapes and colours to happen without my conscious mind interrupting, I have discovered that it is a very meditative state I need to look clearly at my synaesthesia in a way that allows me to translate it into a drawing. Then there is the question of energy and emotion; I need to capture that in my drawing somehow, both the expression of the musician and my reaction. The more I like the piece of music the stronger the response.

Synaesthetic Sketch of Dig Down by Muse
Synaesthetic Sketch of Dig Down by Muse

Don’t Think, Do!

Despite already being able to draw I had to go through the frustrating learning stages everyone who has ever tried to draw anything has to go through to learn this new way. There were a lot of bad drawings at first, lacking the right colours, the wrong shape, no energy. Drawing my synaesthetic experience is like trying to draw any fast moving scene, a galloping horse, a tree full of birds, a cricket match or children playing. It will not sit still for me. I have seconds to look, memorise, select a colour then translate into a drawing. Luckily music is often repetitive which gives me the opportunity to see shapes and colours again.

Practise, Practise, Practise

Slowly it came together; I practised, I learnt what worked and what didn’t, what materials I was most comfortable using and what scale I preferred. I have two sketchbooks one small A5 one in which I make composite coloured pencil drawings of the most dominant and attention-grabbing parts of a whole song and sheets of A3 on which I draw single musician studies using oil and sometimes chalk pastels.

Portrait of A Bassist: Nicky Wire
Portrait of A Bassist: Nicky Wire

Mastery …and more practising

It took nine years to get to the point where I decided I had mastered the technique enough to draw live in front of an audience. That decision only came after meeting another artist whose music fitted so well with my synaesthesia, and whose creative process could complement mine. I took the leap into performing live with solo-bassist Steve Lawson after I began to learn to play bass myself.

If you want to remain good at a new skill you have to keep practising, you have to keep developing and pushing the boundaries of what you can do. The need to push on is why I started my abstract portrait series, an Instagram sketchbook project using time-lapse photography to record my synaesthetic drawing process and capture a little of the spontaneity of the live shows, (a very little). It’s pretty simple, set up camera, set up sketchbook and pastels, set camera rolling, headphones on, draw.

It turned in to a gratifying process, and for a non-animator, I ended up hinting at the movement of my synaesthesia in the time lapse drawings as well as the shapes and colours.  I am now, eleven years distant from my graduation from art school and two away from where I felt I’d started to get to grips with translating my synaesthetic visions into drawings. This is still a journey, the more you know the further your horizons move away from you. When I started this adventure, I had no idea I would end up performing drawing either on a screen or live. Your goals and outlook change the more you learn, and consequently the more you realise quite how much you don’t know.

To see more time lapses head over to my YouTube chanel